Protecting Medicare and Rebuilding Our Infrastructure

Floor Speech

By:  John Garamendi
Date: Dec. 18, 2012
Location: Washington, DC

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Mr. GARAMENDI. Before I get into the issues that I want to talk about, I want to also reach out to Jay. Since nobody from this side of the aisle has yet spoken, I'd like to do so.

About 3 years ago, I started doing Special Order hours, and always Jay would come up to me during the floor session and ask me what we had planned and share with me the Republican plans for the Special Order hour. And we'd work it out: Will you take the full hour, yes or no? Probably 40 minutes, maybe less. That was so we would have a smooth transition from the Republican Special Order hour or the other way around, Democrat to Republican. It has been a great pleasure to work with you, Jay. You do a great job here.

I could echo everything that's been said, but I really don't know all of the intricacies on your side. I do know that when they involve our side of the aisle, you're there to make it a smooth transition and to make it work. It was a pleasure working with you, and I'll miss you along with, I'm sure, every other Member of this House. So Godspeed and best wishes to you in your retirement.

Thank you very much, Jay.

Many things have happened over the last several days. We've got the fiscal cliff, but we've also had not only the retirement of very special people in the lives of the House of Representatives and the Senate, but also the recent death of Senator Inouye, which marks the passage of the generation that fought in World War II.

I've been asked, and I'll gladly yield whatever time our colleague, Colleen Hanabusa of Hawaii, would like to take in memory of an extraordinary Senator.

I had the pleasure of working with him in the mid-90s when I was the Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Interior. We were working on the Native Hawaiian lands issues. He was a remarkable individual, one that not only understood the intricacies of that very complex situation, but also had enormous passion for the Native Hawaiians.

So tonight I yield whatever time she might want to take to Colleen Hanabusa, our colleague from the great State of Hawaii.

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Mr. GARAMENDI. The eulogy that was just given is most appropriate. There are men and women of extraordinary talent that have served in this Capitol, and certainly, Senator Inouye fits that. There is also a fiscal cliff out there, and I know the Senator was working diligently on that before his last days. Here, too, in the House of Representatives, we also should be working diligently on that.

It seems as though we are not making as much progress as we should. We have about 10 days now. Actually, I guess it's 12, 13 days. We go to January 3, so it's 16 days before the fiscal cliff actually occurs. Between now and then, we have a great challenge. We have the well-being of this Nation, the world's strongest and, in many, many ways, the world's greatest Nation. It doesn't really hang in the balance, but its well-being in the years ahead will be largely determined by how well we address this challenge of the fiscal cliff. It's the deficit. Will we be able to put in place a solid plan that over the course of, perhaps, a decade addresses the deficit and brings it under control and begins to reduce it? I know we can. We've done it before.

We did it in the 1990s when President Clinton made a proposal that would raise taxes and reduce expenditures. It led during that period of time to a surplus, a surplus that was dramatically altered when the George W. Bush administration came in and started two wars and enormous tax cuts simultaneously, and it led to a deficit that was extraordinarily increased as the Great Recession took place in 2008. We need to turn that around.

President Obama has made a very solid set of proposals during the course of the campaign, one in which taxes for a couple would go up over $250,000 of adjusted gross income; all of their income below that would continue to have the tax reduction. He also made very substantial proposals to reduce expenditures. Those are now being negotiated in a back-and-forth between Speaker Boehner and the President. He also made some very important proposals to grow the economy--significant investments in infrastructure, significant investments in research, in education, in the fundamental investments that create ongoing growth in the economy.

I'm not sure how this is going to work out, but here on the Democratic side of the aisle we have some principles that we want to lay down, and tonight we will discuss those principles. We've done this before--we've talked about Medicare, we've talked about Social Security, we've talked about laying down the investments.

Joining me tonight will be my colleagues from around this Nation. I want to start with Jason Altmire, who has talked to these issues many times and who wants to present to us our view as Democrats.

Jason, if you will take the floor and speak to these issues.

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Mr. GARAMENDI. Mr. Altmire, thank you very much for moving this issue along.

I've used this placard before when we were discussing the Republican budget that did pass this House that would end Medicare as we know it. That was just a way of doing it with vouchers or with what they call premium support. Either way, Medicare as a guarantee of health care for those people 65 and over would be over. Now, there are other ways that Medicare can be whittled away, weakened to the point where it could simply die of malnutrition. We want to be quite certain that this doesn't happen and that this tombstone never comes to pass. It was 1965 that President Lyndon Johnson signed Medicare into existence, and we're not going to let it end in 2011 or 2012 or beyond.

I recall so vividly an experience as a child, I was probably, I don't know, 10, 12 years old. My father took me to the county hospital, which is where the elderly went to die. There was no Medicare then. It didn't exist. More than half of the seniors were in poverty. There was no health care available to them. No insurance company would insure the elderly. They were expensive. And so there was literally no way that they would be able to get health care except at the county hospital, a ward strung out as far as my eye could see, beds on both sides, the stench unbelievable. The moaning and the crying that was going on unbelievable.

In 1965, America took a step to become a compassionate Nation where we would take care of the elderly. And so proposals have been bandied about, the Republican budget basically terminating Medicare or whittling away at it in various ways, most recently to increase the eligibility age from 65 to 67. What is a person to do when they're 65 and cannot get private insurance? And at the same time, they want to do away with the opportunity that exists in the Affordable Care Act for an exchange that could possibly provide insurance, but they want to do away with that. Come on. Come on. This is America where we take care of the elderly and we provide the services.

Medicare can be dealt with. We can deal with the inflation in Medicare and in the Affordable Care Act. Many, many things were done to start on that process, for example, keeping seniors healthy, providing for the annual medical checkup; making sure that they had the drug benefits, making sure that the drug benefit part D was available to all seniors; closing the doughnut hole in the Medicare part D drug benefit; electronic medical records; infection rates in hospitals being reduced.

I'm going to take just 2 seconds to show you what has happened as a result of the Affordable Care Act and other measures.

The inflation rate in Medicare has been dramatically reduced since the Affordable Care Act, ObamaCare, went into effect. It is down in the 2, 2 1/2 percent range now and has remained there since ObamaCare went into effect.

The changes in ObamaCare extended the viability, the financial viability of Medicare by 8 years, and here's the effect. The inflation rate is now less than the general health care inflation rate, and this has caused a recalculation of the deficit in the years ahead. The deficit in the years ahead was based on an inflation rate up here in the 5 percent range, but when it's down in the 2 percent range, the deficit has been reduced by over $200 billion simply because Medicare is not inflating, growing as fast as anticipated back 2 1/2 years ago.

More can be done without taking away one benefit from seniors. The Federal Government could negotiate drug prices, bringing down the cost. The Federal Government could institute better payment mechanisms so there is a continuity of care rather than a one-off episodic care for seniors. In so doing, seniors stay healthier longer and the inflation rate and the cost are reduced. There are many other things.

But let me be very clear about this. If there is an effort to throw seniors who become 65 off of Medicare by denying them the opportunity, we will see an increase in the total cost of health care in the United States, because those seniors will not be able to get quality medical care. They will become sick and they will wind up somewhere in the system, perhaps in an emergency room, somewhere in the hospital, and the total cost of the system will go up. But if you keep seniors on Medicare, when they become 65, they will have access to quality care, better health care. And with the changes that were in the Affordable Care Act, ObamaCare, they will be healthier longer and the cost of care will be reduced for all of us in the health care system.

Now, I suspect we'll come back to Medicare before this night is done, but we ought to talk about jobs for awhile. We were on this floor a few weeks ago, and we spent some time talking about infrastructure, about jobs, and our colleague from the State of New York, that is the western side of New York, is joining us tonight to pick up that issue once again.

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Mr. GARAMENDI. Well, let's continue this discussion of infrastructure. The last time we took this up 3 weeks ago, we had talked about an infrastructure bank, a proposal that's been presented to the House of Representatives now for at least 15 years. I believe our colleague from Connecticut, Rosa DeLauro, has introduced that bill year after year.

You said that the Federal Government can borrow money, 10-year notes, even 15-year notes somewhere around a percent and a half, maybe towards 2 percent. If we were to borrow that, put it into an infrastructure bank, and then loan money to infrastructure projects that have a cash flow, sanitation facility, water facility, toll bridges, and numerous other kinds of infrastructure which are desperately needed, we could have a financing system that, over time, would actually make money for the Federal Government, could borrow at 1 1/2 percent, loan at 1 3/4 percent, have a margin there. The money would flow back in. You'd get that revolving.

The President has actually proposed this in his American Jobs Act. He's picked this up during his debate, the fiscal cliff negotiations, put it back on the table.

We ought to be doing that. In doing so, we will create tens of thousands, indeed hundreds of thousands, of American jobs, American jobs. And if we couple that with Buy American, so that the equipment, the steel, the concrete, the other ingredients used in these infrastructure projects were American-made, using our tax money for American-made equipment, we would even see a resurgence of the manufacturing base in America.

This is a no-brainer. This is something we ought to have done years ago. But here, as we approach this fiscal cliff, we ought to take up the President's challenge, move forward with an infrastructure bank and create jobs in America and build the foundation for economic growth.

Mr. Altmire, why don't you pick this piece up and carry it.

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Mr. GARAMENDI. Indeed, we do need to invest in infrastructure and we need to rebuild.

I noticed another colleague from the great State of New York has joined us. Often Mr. Tonko and I are here on the floor in what we call the East-West Show.

But Mr. Higgins and Mr. Tonko, your State and the State of New Jersey got whacked by a superstorm.

Mr. TONKO. Yes, it did. Sandy.

Mr. GARAMENDI. Why don't you share with us a little bit of what the State of New York needs to do on infrastructure repair and how to prevent it from happening again.

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Mr. GARAMENDI. I thank you very much for bringing that up. It's not only an issue on the east coast; it's an issue in the Midwest, it's an issue in the West, it's an issue all across this Nation. The climate is changing. The storms are more severe and are likely to continue to be even more severe in the future. For me, my district is 200 miles of the Sacramento River. The second most city at risk of flooding in the United States after New Orleans is Sacramento. The Natomas portion of Sacramento and certain portions along the American River in Sacramento are in extraordinarily dangerous territory. We need to rebuild our levees. We need to upgrade our levees. We should not wait until they break and then try to deal with the death, the destruction, and the rebuilding that then occurs, but do exactly what you said, Mr. Higgins, and that is anticipate the next storm. Build ahead of it. Protect ourselves ahead of it.

I have some 1,500 to 2,000 miles of flood levees in my district. We need serious infrastructure improvement. Just this last week, Friday, I was in the Yuba City area of Sutter County. Forty miles of levee need to be upgraded and improved. We need action by the Federal Government. The Army Corps of Engineers needs to issue the 408 permit in a big hurry so that we can begin the construction of the improvements of those levees. And that's not unusual across this Nation because many other parts of this Nation, including the rebuilding of New York and New Jersey, need to build higher standards--and not just repair what was damaged, but to build to a higher standard. That takes money. And this is where the Federal Government has a critical role to play. We need to make that money available.

In some cases, there are repayment systems. We talked about that with an infrastructure bank. In other cases, there are not, and the local governments, together with the State and Federal Government, come together and build those systems.

But the Federal Government has to step forward as the major partner in all of these. And if we do it in a way that uses the money to buy American-made equipment and supplies, we can create even more jobs in America.

Part of the Make It America agenda that we have been promoting now for 2 years is just that--you use that money to buy American-made equipment and you rebuild the American manufacturing base at the same time that you build the infrastructure.

Mr. Altmire, you stood up with enthusiasm while I was speaking. So what do you have here?

Mr. ALTMIRE. I wasn't sure if the gentleman was planning to transition into another topic as he draws to a close.

Mr. GARAMENDI. Well, we actually need to do that, but why don't we wrap up the infrastructure here and then I do want to spend a few moments talking about Social Security and perhaps ending back to where we started on Medicare and these programs.

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Mr. GARAMENDI. Thank you, Mr. Tonko. Once again, we have a challenge ahead of us.

Mr. Higgins, I know that this has been one of your principal issues here in the House of Representatives. If you would like to wrap up on this piece of our discussion tonight, on the infrastructure piece, then we will take the final 10 to 15 minutes and pick back up to the Medicare and Social Security issues that are also very much part of what is on the table today as we address the fiscal cliff, growing the economy, and jobs.

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Mr. GARAMENDI. You're absolutely correct that if we're to deal with the deficit, we have to put Americans back to work. The infrastructure has, over the years, been a principal way in which you employ Americans--we did this with the stimulus bill and it had great effect--but it also builds the foundation for tomorrow's economic growth and protects people along the way. It protects property; it protects valuable assets that we have in our Nation.

The President has been very clear about this for more than 15 months now. Fifteen months ago he put before Congress the American Jobs Act, one element of which was the infrastructure. He wanted an additional $50 billion over and above the $53 billion that you described earlier, Mr. Higgins, as the ongoing infrastructure.

Our colleague here, we talked earlier--I think Mr. Higgins you raised this issue, and Mr. Tonko did also--Thursday, two days from now, we're going to take up the National Defense Authorization Act, which is the plan for our national security, the military. In that piece of legislation there is a minimum of $88 billion to be spent between October 2012 and September 30 of 2013 on the Afghanistan war, $88 billion. That's a lot of money.

All that we're talking about in this cut discussion that's under way between the President and Mr. Boehner is somewhere, $400 billion, maybe $500 billion; $88 billion in Afghanistan next year. A good portion of that is for infrastructure in Afghanistan, as was discussed earlier today.

We know how to make decisions here. Part of those decisions that are on the table today are very serious cuts to the Medicare program. I discussed earlier the Medicare eligibility age has been proposed by the Speaker of the House on the Republican side to be increased from 65 to 67 years. It will have a disastrous effect on those who have paid into Medicare their entire working lives and expect to be able to have that health care benefit available to them when they become 65.

It will not save much money, but it will surely harm thousands upon thousands of Americans.

Similarly, suggestions have been made to dramatically alter Social Security. Suggestions that will significantly harm a vast number of Americans--perhaps, I don't know the numbers--probably 20 million Americans who are currently obtaining Social Security benefits but will not see the adjustment for inflation. These are people that are receiving less than $1,500 a month for Social Security. And for many of them, for many of them that is their total source of income.

Mr. Altmire, you have been a person that knows the statistics here and knows the numbers. I speak more from my heart rather than the precise numbers, so my colleagues, let's join in this conversation about Social Security. I think the starting point comes from the compassion that we should all possess for seniors, but the facts also need to be understood here.

One fact should be clear to all 435 Members in this House, and that is that the deficit that we are facing and all the discussion about the deficit and the fiscal cliff is not a Social Security problem. It is not a Social Security problem. It is a tax revenue issue which we've talked here a little bit about. It is an issue for Medicare, which we can solve without cutting benefits. It's an issue for the military, the war in Iraq, the $88 billion that we're going to spend there in the next 9 months. Those are real issues about the deficit.

Social Security does not contribute one nickel, one penny to the deficit. It is a trust fund apart from this deficit issue. It has its own source of revenue, and we ought not be harming seniors while we are giving continuing tax breaks to people that are making lots of money. Let's get this straight: Social Security should not be on the table as we discuss this issue.

Now, we know 8 years from now, 7 years, maybe 9 years from now, Social Security has to be adjusted because of the continuing number of people that are coming on.

Are we out of time just as I'm getting wound up on Social Security?

The SPEAKER pro tempore (Mr. Bucshon). The time of the gentleman has expired.

Mr. GARAMENDI. I think we are finished for this evening.

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